Restaurant de La Tour Eiffel
Garden District: 2040 St. Charles Avenue
From 1936 until 1981, a major restaurant operated at the 562-foot level of the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Among its customers were Picasso, Bardot, deGaulle, Chaplin, Hitler, and thousands of honeymooners. During a restoration of the tower, the restaurant was found to be too heavy for the structure. It was removed entirely; the company that did the work was allowed to keep all the pieces in exchange for its fee. Everything was packed in freight containers and stored. A new, smaller restaurant was put in its place.
In 1983 Chef Daniel Bonnot—the founding chef of Louis XVI Restaurant and one of the best French chefs in our city's history—got wind of this. He and Louis XVI's business manager John Onorio negotiated the purchase of the restaurant's fixtures for $900,000 and had them shipped to New Orleans. While waiting, the ground was prepared and plans drawn. Ultimately, it cost $1.7 million dollars—a very large sum for a restaurant in those days.
A bad omen appeared. During the time the parts of the old restaurant were in storage, water got into them, and most of the woodwork was ruined beyond repair. Nevertheless, the project went on. A superstructure designed by local architect Stephen Bingler went up across St. Charles Avenue from the Pontchartrain Hotel. It lofted the restaurant to sixteen feet above ground, and in its design suggested the restaurant's old home. Then the work of reassembling the 11,062-piece puzzle began--not without at least a little confusion about what went where.
Restaurant de la Tour Eiffel opened on St. Charles Avenue on the day after Thanksgiving, 1986. It was not what anyone expected. It was very French, of course. It was also very good—Daniel Bonnot knew what he was about. But he focused more on country French cooking and a bistro style than the grand French food he had been cooking. This was ahead of its time—that's the only kind of French food you can find here anymore. But in 1986 it puzzled the customers who filled the place.
If you're accustomed to the food at La Crepe Nanou or Café Degas, you have a good idea of what they served at Tour Eiffel. Mussels mariniere, duck terrine, escargots, onion soup a la Halles, steak au poivre, and duck confit. Chef Daniel reached a little farther than the average French bistro, though, and had crepes with caviar, filet mignon zingara (made with a spicy Gypsy-inspired sauce made with beef tongue, although he never told anyone that), choucroute garni, rack of lamb Nicoise, and occasionally really ethnic French food like tete de veau.
And he made hot soufflees. Savory soufflees, like the oyster Rockefeller soufflees he'd created at Louis XVI. And even more dessert soufflees. The plan was to keep the place open into the wee hours and serve elaborate desserts and Champagne (it came out in an ice bucket made in the shape of a top hat).
That idea provided me with one of the most memorable evenings of my life. At a party for the New Orleans Opera, a number of young female models from the Mannequins Club were in attendance. The host of the party asked me—since I was single and perceived as sophisticated—to take the girls out for a late snack. I suggested soufflees and Champagne at the Eiffel Tower. So we went: ten beautiful women and me. Chef Daniel sent out thirteen different hot soufflees. I do not expect any aspect of that evening to repeat itself in my lifetime.
One of the most surprising aspects of the Eiffel Tower was that it was very inexpensive. Even the priciest entrees were barely over ten dollars (except, of course, for things like caviar). It seemed too affordable.
And it was. The place was quickly in financial trouble. The food declined, and volume followed--or perhaps it was the other way around. The Eiffel Tower had a problem. As distinctive as the structure was, it was set so far back from the avenue that it was hidden among the high buildings on either side. You could drive in front of it a hundred times and not see it. This remains true, and it is at least partly to blame for the string of other failures at that address. At this writing, it's a very hip restaurant and bar called Eiffel Society.
Restaurant de la Tour Eiffel left Bonnot and Onorio in bad shape financially. Daniel Bonnot had to begin his career all over again, with the grubby but excellent Chez Daniel on Metairie Road. It was a short run for such a distinctive and expensive project. But it still sparkles in the minds of everyone who ever dined there, especially in its first year.